A Maine metropolis that is 90% White now has a Somali mayor

2021-12-07 21:22:46

Some folks, she says, appeared scared to open their doorways when she knocked. Others noticed her hijab and assumed she did not converse English.

However Dhalac saved knocking and telling her story.

And he or she says lots has modified since these days again in 2018, when she first ran for Metropolis Council in South Portland, Maine — and gained. On Monday she grew to become the primary Black mayor of the small metropolis on the state’s Southern Coast. And he or she’s believed to be the primary Somali American mayor in the US.

South Portland’s different metropolis councilors, who’re all White, elected her in a unanimous vote, heaping reward on Dhalac for her dedication to the group and considerate consideration of points.

Dhalac, 53, says her election exhibits what will be completed when folks discover methods to attach with one another as an alternative of placing up partitions.

“Individuals will at all times have some form of reservation…however will get to know you, hearken to you and see who you’re by way of that,” she says.

Provided that Maine is the whitest state within the nation, and that South Portland is 90% White, Dhalac is aware of her election sounds shocking to some.

However she says that it should not be. And that is one motive she ran for workplace within the first place.

She hopes her election as mayor will encourage others to observe in her footsteps.

“I am…actually pleased with the truth that I will be opening a whole lot of paths for other people who appear to be me, particularly our younger group members, to say, ‘If this girl can do that, really I can do this,'” Dhalac advised the Metropolis Council final month after her nomination.

“And likewise not just for immigrant, first-generation or Black folks, but in addition younger, White people who could have been afraid or do not need to be part of the civic duties that all of us have. … I say, ‘Sure, if I can do that, sure, you are able to do it. We actually, really want you, every one in every of you on this stunning metropolis of ours, to step up.'”

Her election marks a number of milestones

Dhalac’s inauguration is a milestone for Somali immigrant communities which have grown in dimension and grow to be extra established in states like Maine, Minnesota, Ohio and Washington. As that is occurred, extra Somali Individuals are taking up roles on native college boards and metropolis councils — and likewise serving as lawmakers, like Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota.

Dhalac is the primary Somali American mayor in the US, in accordance with New American Leaders, a company that trains and encourages immigrants to run for workplace. However the group says they hope she will not be the final.

Regina Phillips, left, speaks with Deqa Dhalac, right, at an Eid-al-Fitr celebration on July 9, 2016, in Westbrook, Maine.

“Her management will definitely make an enormous distinction not solely in South Portland, however across the nation,” mentioned Ghida Dagher, the group’s president. “She’s going to serve an instance for Somali Individuals throughout the nation to step up and step into their very own management journey. … It is about proudly owning their very own energy and potential in our democracy.”

Dhalac’s election can be a historic first for South Portland, which has by no means had a Black mayor earlier than, says Seth Goldstein, vp of the South Portland Historic Society.

Goldstein, who teaches historical past and leads historic excursions within the space, says he is pleased to observe this new chapter in his metropolis’s historical past unfold.

“It’s extremely thrilling, I believe that it’s reflective of the best way that the group right here is progressively altering,” Goldstein says.

About 6,000 Somalis reside in Maine, Goldstein mentioned, due to a wave of migration that started within the early 2000s.

Their arrival hasn’t at all times been met with open arms. In 2002, the mayor of Lewiston, Maine, drew nationwide media consideration when he wrote an open letter telling Somali immigrants to not come to his metropolis.

However Dhalac says the folks she’s met in Maine have been welcoming, and in recent times she’s seen extra Somalis and different immigrants taking up management positions within the state. Prior to now, she says, immigrants had been extra hesitant to run as a result of they had been targeted on making ends meet and supporting their households.

“I believe we had been at all times form of afraid to get entangled. … We had been ready on any person (else) to do one thing,” she mentioned.

In 2018, Dhalac obtained uninterested in ready.

Trump’s presidency helped satisfied her to run

Dhalac fled Somalia in 1990, simply earlier than the nation descended into civil conflict. After she immigrated to the US in 1992, she says it wasn’t lengthy earlier than she began organizing fellow immigrants to grow to be residents and vote. However she’d by no means considered working for workplace herself, till she got here to a troubling realization.

“Regardless of how necessary my work was, we had been lacking out on the decision-making tables,” Dhalac mentioned Monday in her inaugural handle.

Deqa Dhalac speaks during a 2016 rally protesting comments by Donald Trump, who was then the Republican presidential nominee.

After former US President Donald Trump took workplace, Dhalac advised CNN she felt much more decided to make her voice heard. She joined protesters at a 2016 rally after Trump made feedback denigrating Somali immigrants.

The following yr, she participated in a protest in opposition to White supremacy and drew cheers from the gang when she declared, “I’m a Muslim, Black immigrant girl, and I am not going wherever.”

When a gap got here up on the South Portland Metropolis Council, Dhalac says many individuals had been pushing her to run. As soon as she obtained her household’s blessing, she began knocking on doorways, doing what she might to attach with voters and win them over.

In 2018, she ran in opposition to an area enterprise proprietor and gained, making historical past as the primary African American and first Muslim elected to the council. In 2020, she ran unopposed for a second time period. Town council selects from amongst its members who will likely be mayor, and in November, her colleagues unanimously supported her nomination.

And on Monday, they voted to make it official. She’ll serve a one-year time period.

South Portland is residence to about 25,000 folks, making it Maine’s fourth largest metropolis. It neighbors the bigger metropolis of Portland and can be residence to the state’s largest mall and half of the Portland Worldwide Jetport.

Dhalac’s main priorities for the town embrace enhancing its local weather change response, growing the provision of inexpensive housing and selling variety, fairness and inclusion.

Being on South Portland’s Metropolis Council is not a full-time job. Dhalac has a background in social work, and by day she’s the household engagement and cultural responsiveness specialist for Maine’s Division of Schooling. She additionally serves on quite a few boards and is the mom of three grownup youngsters.
Deqa Dhalac in 2018. She encourages other immigrants to become active in their communities.

However regardless of how a lot else she has on her plate, Dhalac says she at all times needs members of the group to really feel snug coming to her with questions.

They usually do, Dhalac says.

“Why is the development taking too lengthy? … Why does this individual have a rooster subsequent door? You title it.”

There is a Somali saying behind her management philosophy

On Monday, so many individuals wished to attend Dhalac’s inauguration that organizers needed to transfer it to a bigger auditorium.

Dhalac says she’s grateful to group members who might have seen her as a stranger, however welcomed her as an alternative. And that connection ought to go each methods, she says.

She encourages fellow immigrants to go away their bubbles, too.

“We’re dwelling in the identical area, so we should always construct relationships collectively,” she says.

Members of South Portland's City Council and staff give a standing ovation to Deqa Dhalac, the city's new mayor.

Dhalac factors to a Somali saying: “What I’m lacking is inside my brother or inside my sister.”

That, she says, signifies that as a way to make the perfect choices, leaders should seek the advice of with the group.

In her inaugural handle Monday, Dhalac pledged to maintain an open thoughts as mayor “and pay attention with empathy, compassion, grace and understanding, so we will serve South Portland collectively.”

The group gave her a standing ovation.

CNN’s Hayley Wilson contributed to this story.

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